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Safwat Hegazi, Body Double?

Safwat Hegazi (R, L?)
Safwat Hegazi (R, L?)

In late August and early September I published an article and two other posts about Safwat Hegazi, one of the more controversial Islamist supporters of Mohamed Morsi.

The article collected links and information about his often inflammatory speeches and public statements, calling him a Bellwether of Egyptian Islamism.

The second linked to a full article describing an interview conducted by Arab West Report at the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest site. In it he comes across as very reasonable, denying any membership in the Muslim Brotherhood.

And the third was a link to a very surprising video confession by Hegazi about his regretful association with these protests, sad to see them provoking bloodshed. That post expressed a bit of shock leading to the title, Safwat Hegazi, Stool Pigeon?

Several weeks later in a conversation with a Salafi friend, we discussed Hegazi. ‘That video,’ he said confidently, ‘was faked. Hegazi might be dead or he might be in custody, but that video looked nothing like him.’

It made me recall my initial surprise, both in his confession and appearance.

Hegazi’s trial has now begun, in which he declared the released photos were fake:

Egyptian hardline Islamist preacher Safwat Hegazy said Saturday during his ongoing trial that photos of him following his arrest released by Egypt’s Interior Ministry were fabricated, according to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party website.

Hegazy, who appeared in court on Saturday along with FJP leader Mohamed El-Beltagy – both charged with inciting violence – reportedly said photos released online by the ministry upon his arrest in August were fake.

The photos showed him with a shaved beard and only a dyed-black goatee. Hegazy stated that he never shaved his beard prior to his arrest.

The allegedly fabricated photos of Hegazy stirred public confusion following their release over the significant changes in his appearance since his detainment. It was widely believed that he had changed his appearance to avoid detection.

Hegazy appeared in photos of Saturday’s court session with his trademark white beard.

The confusion continues. Were the released videos and pictures real, an attempt at character assassination, or irrelevant either because of his overall innocence or outstanding guilt?

But there is another twist besides:

Judges of Cairo Criminal Court recused themselves Saturday from the trial of Muslim Brotherhood leading figure Mohamed El-Beltagy and Islamist preacher Safwat Hegazy, saying it has felt unease over the case.

No further explanation was given. Was the unease due to an obvious miscarriage of justice, or fear of Islamist supporters if they carried out justice?Or, was it simply from an inability to conduct the trial, as in this related case:

A second panel of judges has withdrawn from the trial of Muslim Brotherhood leaders accused of inciting the killing of protesters.

The defendants refused to recognise the court, dubbed it “void” and “illegitimate,” and chanted “down with the military rule.”

The judges said they were unable to conduct the trial properly.

Like many questions of the revolution, we will have to wait and see, but waiting often takes a long time…

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Recruitment Compared: The Brotherhood vs. Salafis

From an older article at the Hudson Institute, with a very thorough description of how one becomes a Muslim Brother or a Salafi:

First, the Brotherhood uses a rigid process of internal promotion to ensure its members’ commitment to the gama’a and its cause.  The process begins at recruitment, when specially designated Muslim Brothers scout out potential members at mosques and universities across Egypt. During the process of recruitment, prospective Muslim Brothers are introduced to the organization through social activities, such as sports and camping, which give the Brotherhood an opportunity to further assess each recruit’s personality and confirm his piety.  If the recruit satisfies local Brotherhood leaders, he begins a rigorous five-to-eight-year process of internal promotion, during which he ascends through four different membership ranks, muhib, muayyad, muntasib and muntazim before finally achieving the status of ach ‘amal, or “active brother.”

During each stage of internal promotion, the rising Muslim Brother’s curriculum intensifies, and he is tested, either orally or through a written exam, before advancing to the next stage.  For example, a muayyad (second stage) is expected to memorize major sections of the Qur’an and study the writings of Brotherhood founder al-Banna, while a muntasib (third stage) studies hadith and Qur’anic exegesis.  Rising Muslim Brothers also assume more responsibilities within the organization: muayyads are trained to preach in mosques and recruit other members, and muntasibs continue these activities while also donating six-to-eight percent of their income to the organization.[11]  This process serves to weed out those who are either less committed to the organization, or who dissent with some of its principles or approaches.  Muslim Brothers’ commitment to the organization is further established through their assumption of a bay’a, an oath, to “listen and obey,” which occurs sometime after the midpoint of this promotional process.[12]

Second, the Brotherhood pursues its Islamizing project by maintaining a well-developed nationwide hierarchical organization.  At the top of this structure is the Guidance Office (maktab al-irshad), a twenty-member body largely comprised of individuals in their late fifties to early seventies.  The Guidance Office executes decisions on which the 120-member Shura committee (magles al-shura al-‘amm) votes, and orders are sent down the following chain of command: the Guidance Offices calls leaders in each regional sector (qita’), who transmit the order to leaders in each governorate (muhafaza), who pass it on to their deputies in each subsidiary area (muntaqa), who refer it to the chiefs in each subsidiary populace (shu’aba), who then call the heads of the Brotherhood’s local cells, known as usras, or “families.”  The usra is typically comprised of five to eight Muslim Brothers, and they execute the Guidance Office’s orders at the local level throughout Egypt.  Such directives can include everything from managing social services to mobilizing the masses for pro-Brotherhood demonstrations, to supporting Brotherhood candidates during elections.

The union of a committed membership and a clear chain-of-command provides the Muslim Brotherhood with a well-oiled political machine and thereby a tremendous advantage over the Salafists.  Indeed, whereas the Brotherhood is one cohesive entity that can summon hundreds of thousands of veritable foot soldiers, not to mention the millions of ordinary Egyptians who benefit from its social services, to execute its agenda, the Salafist movement is entirely decentralized and spread out among a plethora of Salafist groups, schools, and shaykhs.

In a certain sense, Salafists are mirror images of Muslim Brothers in that they privilege ideological objectives above organizational ones.  Indeed, many Salafists are “quietist,” in that they view Salafism as a personal religious commitment and reject attempts to politicize it: “I don’t have to join any organization to be more religious,” stated Bakr, a Salafist who participated in the youth coalition that organized the 2011 anti-Mubarak protests, when asked why he never considered joining the Muslim Brotherhood, he said: “There is no organization in Salafism because an organization needs a target.  And there is no target in Salafism, the only point is dawa (outreach).”  Even those Salafists who are deeply involved in Salafist organizations view their affiliation as secondary to their personal religious commitments. “Salafist streams are movements and different schools, not an organization,” said al-Gamaa al-Islamiya member Abdullah Abdel Rahman, son of the infamous “Blind Shaykh” Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  “It’s a way of life.  Anyone who follows the Holy Book and Sunna, they call him a Salafist.  They don’t have a certain person to follow.  …  They all have their own schools, but agree on one way.”

Salafism’s deeply personal, self-directed nature is perhaps most evident in the independent process through which one becomes a Salafist.  In stark contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood’s five-to-eight-year, four-stage process of internal promotion, one becomes a Salafist simply by declaring himself a “multazim,” or “obligated” to follow a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunna.  Typically, a multazim attaches himself to a specific Salafist shaykh, with whom he studies how to live a deeply conservative lifestyle.  But the multazim can choose his shaykh, unlike a Muslim Brother, who is assigned to an usra and handed a standardized curriculum.

It is a long article, written after the passage of the Islamist dominated constitution in 2012, but still relevant.

It is too early to say how things have changed, but I imagine Muslim Brotherhood recruitment is rather difficult now. Much of their upper leadership is in prison, but presumably the lower ranks can carry on activity, however impeded. I gather their usras explain much mobilizing force behind recent smaller area protests.

As for Salafis, the question is if the leading sheikhs have been compromised by cooperation with the current government. It may be much easier, however, for the average Salafi-inclined individual to resort back to a quietist, non-political faith that had long accepted the misguided rule of Mubarak, which if less than legitimate made rebellion also illegitimate for the social strife it would incur.

But the present is still being written, so we will see.

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On How to Draw Electoral Districts

If this seems like a boring title, read on. This article from Foreign Policy sheds much light on how Egyptian politics works, or at least used to work, and may again:

The attempt to restore the Mubarak-era way of doing business reflects the nature of the coalition that backed Morsy’s removal in July. The most critical opposition to Morsy’s rule outside Cairo came from the large families and tribes in the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt, which comprised the Mubarak regime’s base and benefitted from its clientelist approach to politics.

“These traditional powers are the critical mass of voters,” Abdullah Kamal, a journalist and onetime official in Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP), told me. These clans, he continued, “had sympathy” for Mubarak, voted for Mubarak’s former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik in the 2012 presidential elections, and would likely back Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi if he runs for president.

For decades, these clans wielded substantial political influence. They were empowered by the Mubarak regime’s use of relatively small electoral districts, which allowed them to mobilize their family members and local supporters to win elections. And since Egypt’s parliament was largely a mechanism for distributing state resources, the clans typically used their electoral victories to deliver resources back to their districts and thereby entrench their local support. Following the 2011 uprising, however, the new electoral system entailed much wider electoral districts that diluted these traditional powers’ support. Meanwhile the Islamist parties rode their internal unity to overwhelming, nationwide victories.

While the details for Egypt’s next parliamentary elections will be determined by the government, it is widely anticipated that the next system will feature smaller districts that will re-empower the old tribal networks. Influential players within the Egyptian state are pushing for a system that would shrink electoral districts considerably.

This is likely common knowledge to those who have followed Egypt for years, but it paints a very different picture than the argument issued after the revolution. Newer, non-Islamist parties complained about the large districts because they lacked the organizing power necessary to campaign across the whole area, as well as the social base of their competition and its charitable networks. What may have been meant is that they didn’t have the time to recruit and organize these stalwart power bases of old National Democratic Party support.

That could be a very unfair accusation. But the powers that drew the electoral districts – and I would have to research more to remember who did so (was it the Brotherhood-dominated Parliament or a state appointed electoral commission?) – made what could have been a revolutionary decision to break these ‘feloul’ power brokers, and it worked out very well for Islamists.

Gerrymandering. Politics is the same the world over, isn’t it? Alright, forgive me if it was still a little boring.

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Cairo’s Christian Garbagemen Back to Work

From the Guardian, describing a reversal in state policy to work with those who do the job best:

In 2012 former president Mohamed Morsi had made the state of the streets an electoral issue, claiming that he would clean them up in 100 days. He failed. “There’s only one solution,” said Greiss, “and that is to bring the Zabaleen back to the core of the waste collection and disposal process.”

The Zabaleen are a Christian community who migrated from Upper Egypt to the outskirts of Cairo in the 1940s. Extremely poor, they earned a living as the city’s ragpickers before turning to recycling in the early 1980s. With the help of NGOs, including APE, they have facilities for recycling plastic, paper and metal; they feed organic waste to the pigs they keep in their backyards. Animal excrement is sent to a compost plant in a Cairo suburb where it is processed and sold to farmers.

The Zabaleen currently collect some 9,000 tonnes of garbage per day, nearly two-thirds of the 15,000 tonnes of rubbish thrown away by Cairo’s 17 million or so inhabitants, and yet they have never been officially recognised by the Egyptian government.

Now 44 local companies have been registered, moving the model away from foreign based companies:

Iskandar has reversed the policy of previous governments, which tried to marginalise the work of this Christian, mainly Coptic, minority. In 2003, Hosni Mubarak‘s economically liberalising regime asked multinational corporations to handle waste disposal. “That model is not suited to Cairo, where residents are used to dustbins being emptied on each individual floor of a building. People couldn’t get used to taking down their garbage and putting it into special skips, which were later raided by thieves,” said Greiss. “As a result most people continued to pay the Zabaleen to come up and get their garbage unofficially, and then complained because they also had to pay for the foreign service company.”

If their talents are now being unleashed, without restriction, I hope we see a quick turnaround in the garbage problems allowed to fester since the revolution.

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Our Little Ones Watch a Protest

Rabaa Child
From a protest elsewhere in Maadi

The other day Emma’s best friend, Karoleen, and her younger brother, Boula, came over to play at our home following church. As the kids were gathered around the table working on crafts, I heard the familiar sounds of a protest approaching. A fair number have passed near the house in recent months, although they usually go down the main street perpendicular to ours. Since we live on the ground floor, we usually don’t get a good look despite the noise, but this time they turned and came in full view.

We had been looking for an opportunity to film a protest for a recent video we made about the changes in our neighborhood since we returned from a summer in America. So I dropped the construction paper I was cutting up for one of my daughters, grabbed the camera and ran to our play room, which is a glass-enclosed porch. This gave me the best view I could get of the marchers.

I opened the window and screen, just enough to stick the camera out, but I still felt conspicuous. I didn’t really want to attract any attention from the protesters, but I was willing to risk a bit for a decent line of sight. As they marched, I noticed that some of them looked at our house, but not, as best I could tell, in my direction.

But it was then I heard the shouts and screams from my own kids and their friends in the other room, as they watched the protest go by from our living room windows. That’s why they were looking our way.

Two weeks earlier a protest had gone past Karoleen’s house, about ten streets away from our home, while Emma and Hannah were playing there. Her mom told me afterward that it made Emma concerned, even for us in case the protest came towards our home. But Karoleen’s family lives on the 7th floor of her apartment building, far above the action.

So as I was filming, I was simultaneously hoping the kids weren’t too afraid now that they were outside our window. As it turns out I had nothing to worry about. The kids loved it.

They noticed the bright yellow hand signs, though they didn’t know what they meant. They especially took interest in the kids who were marching along in the protest. There were balloons and chanting, which sounded more like cheering to them. In this particular march, there was nothing to be afraid of. It was a friendly, jovial atmosphere.

When I returned to the table the kids talked excitedly about what they had seen. The planned craft was abandoned as they used the construction paper to make protest banners. Theirs, however, bore the name ‘Sisi’ as opposed to ‘Morsi’, in favor of the current military leader who many see as a hero. They teased each other about being ‘for Morsi’ as they bantered around the table. I didn’t realize what fun it would be for them to have political discussions, though this was not the first time our children had taken sides.

In the end, I got the video we had been looking for, and the kids received some unexpected entertainment. We appreciated the peacefulness of the protest, and wound up happy they turned down our street.

It wasn’t until later we were less pleased, noticing the graffiti they had sprayed on our walls. ‘Sisi is a killer,’ they wrote, and, ‘Against Oppression.’ The latter is a message we won’t mind our children seeing every day, but the first one is not so nice. Of course, neither was the explanation we had to give about the yellow signs, commemorating the hundreds of pro-Morsi protestors who were killed when their campsite was cleared.

Our kids, of course, pay little attention to the graffiti. It will be the image of the protest that will stay in their mind, which we invite you to share in also.

'Sisi is a Killer'
‘Sisi is a Killer’
'Against Oppression'
‘Against Oppression’
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Salafi Muslims and American Thanksgiving

Salafi Thanksgiving

From Christianity Today, a very interesting article about an evangelical historian who challenges the received traditions of the Puritans:

In 1623, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford proclaimed the first Thanksgiving. “The great Father,” he declared, “has given us this year an abundant harvest…and granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.” He directed the Pilgrims to gather that November, “the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Plymouth Rock, there to listen to ye Pastor and render Thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all his blessings.”

Except Bradford didn’t write that. Someone—we don’t know who—fabricated this “proclamation” in the late 20th century.

The author takes note of how American Christians are at a bit of a crisis point concerning their national history:

American evangelicals seem to have reached a crisis point over the study of history, especially the history of the American founding. For decades, many evangelicals have turned to popular history writers who have presented America, especially of the colonial and Revolutionary era, as a straightforwardly Christian nation.

But take the popular belief that the pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom. It is not wrong, he argues, but subject to misinterpretation:

He demonstrates that the quest for “religious freedom,” in the modern sense, did not really animate the Pilgrims. Yes, they wanted to find a place where they could worship God according to Scripture and the dictates of conscience. But they had already discovered those conditions in Holland, where a number of English dissenters had gone in the early 1600s.

The most pressing concern that led the Plymouth Separatists to leave Holland was that they found the Netherlands “a hard place to maintain their English identity and an even harder place to make a living.” They did not worry so much about religious persecution (at least not since they left England), but about “spiritual danger and decline.” They worried about the cultural corruption they saw around them in foreign Dutch culture, and struggled to find profitable employment that could nourish their common identity. America seemed to offer both better opportunity and a place to preserve their sense of covenanted community.

And, just to throw in one ugly incident:

We should remember, McKenzie cautions, than not long after the first Thanksgiving—which was indeed a peaceful, if tense meal between the English and their Wampanoag neighbors—the Pilgrims launched a preemptive assault on local Massachusetts Indians that resulted in violence and bitter resentments. The English even placed the severed head of one Native American on a pike outside their fort. Recalling this is telling the truth, not revisionist history.

What does any of this have to do with Salafi Muslims? Nothing at all, except by way of similarity.

The word ‘Salaf’ in Arabic means ‘forefathers’, and Salafi Muslims honor in particular the first three generations of Muslims. This was the golden age of Islam, when the community lived the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. In all current religious interpretation – even in political and cultural matters – Salafis believe Muslims should study this period and apply its lessons accordingly to modern life.

Many Muslims honor this heritage without calling for the same level of imitation as Salafis. But most all of the faithful prefer not to open this history of these forefathers to questioning.

There are two issues at stake. The ancient challenge was given by Shia Muslims who said the community went wrong right after the death of Muhammad. Leadership, they say, should have been passed to Ali, within family lines. It was only the political scheming of these forefathers that prevented his immediate succession, and it was their further scheming that resulted in the loss of his role as caliph.

Sunni Muslims were the political and numerical victors of early Muslim in-fighting. But the Shia challenge contributed to the sanctification of these early generations who established the caliphate. They were also the assemblers of Muhammad’s sunna, his words and deeds not found in the Qur’an, so demonstrating their honesty was paramount. Just as Muslims find it terribly difficult to accept a word spoken against Muhammad, so do Salafi Muslims, and many beside, take offense if the Companions of Muhammad are questioned.

The modern challenge questions this sacred history as well. Using mostly Muslim sources, increasing numbers of historians are dissembling the received traditions about the development of the early Muslim communities. And similar to scholars who try to trace the human origins of the Bible, some also find other than divine influences in the Qur’an. The consequences can be dire for those engaged in revisionist history, or, let historians judge, telling the truth.

History, of course, is often deeply contested. Defining the past is a good way of determining the future.

For American Christians, revisiting the history of Thanksgiving is not nearly as threatening as the accusation that the Trinity was invented at the Council of Nicea, for example. But for a people confident in the idea that God has blessed America, there is often the implicit assumption that he has done so – from his sovereign purposes, of course – but also because of the Christian faithfulness of America’s founders. There is also often the modern application, with political overtones, that if America returns to her Christian heritage God’s blessing will come again.

It may well. ‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land,’ God said to Israel. Americans Christians consider themselves part of the family of God, his people. Should the land of America be considered a possible heir to this promise?

Either way, both American Christians and Salafis must face up to any possible ‘fabrications’ of their history. If this is a crisis point for evangelicals, it is hardly a blip on the radar for Salafis. But both groups have invested heavily in the sacred narrative of their secular traditions. As the author closes in his article:

The temptation toward idol-making seems much more pressing with the titans of America’s national history, those who line the mall in Washington, D.C. Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington: These are the ones that, despite limited evidence of orthodoxy, many of us want—or need—to be evangelical Christians, just like us. We desperately need help to know how to think about those Founders.

Similarly, what will Salafis do with the four ‘rightly guided caliphs’ – Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, and Ali? There were fine Muslims, surely, but what does it say that three of them were killed? What of other leaders who opposed Muhammad until the near-end, and then switched sides? Muslims are not ignorant of these controversies; in fact, Salafis study them diligently. But no one should go beyond the limits of the historic evaluation given to the Companions of Muhammad; no one should tar their reputation.

I must stop short of proscription for either community. This post began as an attempt to draw parallels between two communities not often associated together. But I am a historian of neither narrative, so I dare not make pronouncements that can be easily countered by the studied. Neither am I a theologian, certainly not of Islam to make cavalier statements about how to interpret God in their history.

But I hold as a conviction that fidelity to God requires fidelity to truth, come what may. The shaping of pious myths may aid in the development of social and cultural faith, but they are acts, ultimately, of manipulators. ‘God will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.’

He may take a long time in doing so, but this Thanksgiving, let us be thankful that God will guide us into all truth.

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A Foreign Journalist in an Egyptian Jail

From Vocative, a disturbing account that hits too close to home:

I was reporting on the marchers, and not long after I gave the policemen cigarettes, a young police recruit grabbed me by the back of the neck. He slapped me on the head repeatedly as his friend took my camera from around my neck and my phone from my pocket. He marched me toward a small alley that leads off Tahrir Street, where I could see a number of other Egyptian men being penned in by some riot police.

I fumbled in my wallet for my press pass, from the Cairo Press Center. A senior member of the riot police looked at it and saw that it said “British.” He looked up at me and back down at my photo a few times before saying, in English, “I’m sorry.”

Assuming I was free to go, I asked for my phone and motioned for my pass. But I got a hefty push in the back and suddenly found myself with the other detained men. I called to a nearby police recruit and told him I was a British journalist and said there was some misunderstanding. He told me to put my hands behind my back. When I reiterated my point, he slapped me in the face.

He describes the conditions inside the police station, and though he does not appear to have been singled out for poor treatment, it was poor all the same:

The temperature in the room was rising. A 50-year-old teacher nodded his head gently against my shoulder. I turned around and saw a face of genuine sympathy, “I am sorry,” he said.

“Look,” he motioned to a corner of the room. I had completely missed a man of at least 60 crumpled in the corner. Both his legs were covered with birdshot, blood slowly pooling around his feet. I looked at the blood, and the smell immediately became unbearable.

We could hear screams from outside the door, which would open only to reveal yet another poor man being flogged for no apparent reason. The officers smiled at one another as they beat the men. They fit the stereotype of despotic state security so perfectly it would have been funny if it weren’t so depressing.

After about 90 minutes, they decided to move us—to a minuscule, enclosed courtyard in the middle of the building. Sixty people squeezed in like sardines, sweat beading off us. The tiled floors were dusty and covered in rubbish and aberrant marks of dried blood. I was pushed to my knees once again. I turned and tried to reason with my captors, but was quickly cut off by a kick to the back. “Look straight ahead!” would be the catchphrase for the rest of the evening.

I finally turned and stayed turned, covering the back of my head. I noticed that everyone else was in exactly the same position.

This was by far the most painful part of the day. Kneeling for close to three hours, crammed so closely together there wasn’t space for me to put my hands on the floor to help shift my weight.

It does turn out ok in the end, at least for him and a few others:

Around 10 p.m., about six hours after I was arrested, we were suddenly asked to stand up. I almost collapsed as my knees. Leaning on the man in front of me, I steadied myself and we filed out of the room and upstairs. We were told to line up in front of a notice board. I read the yellowed certificates and newspaper clippings trumpeting the police station’s valiant work of the past decades.

Again, we were pulled aside, one by one, and our details recorded. I stayed there silently while they sorted us into two groups, one with around 12 men and the other with closer to 50. Everyone looked exhausted, the blood on their shirts now that dull brown color.

After some paperwork and backslapping, the policemen sent the larger group back downstairs. The smaller group and I were free to leave.

I wonder what it would have been like in an American jail? Surely nowhere is the experience pleasant, and perhaps six hours is a rather fast processing.

In either setting, I hope I never have to find out. Comfort, comfort, for all who do.

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The Shape of ‘Terrorism’ Outside Cairo

Following on the heels of Morsi’s trial, it is difficult to see how the Muslim Brotherhood is called a terrorist organization from within the urban settings of Cairo. But this article from the Daily Beast describes the embattled position of police elsewhere:

“We never imagined that the violence could reach this point,” said Qadry Said Refay as he lay in the police hospital. The 37-year-old cop based in Fayoum, about 60 miles south of Cairo, had multiple head wounds, a broken right arm, and a deep, guttural cough.

On the morning of August 14, the same day the Brotherhood demonstrators were cleared away by Al-Sisi’s forces in Cairo, Refay reported for duty as usual in the ancient farming town near Egypt’s biggest oasis. The police station got a call: Brotherhood sympathizers were massing for an attack. Refay thinks there were thousands of them. Probably the numbers were smaller than that. But the four officers and 20 cops soon found themselves under attack by men with guns and Molotov cocktails closing in on all four sides of their little compound. After several hours the mob started coming over the walls and breached one of the gates.

I was sure I would lose my life,” said Refay.  In the middle of the fray he took off his uniform shirt, untucked his t-shirt, and put his gun in the back of his belt. He tried for a few seconds to reason with the attackers, but they swarmed over him. They took his pistol. They slashed his face with knives. “The last thing I can remember,” he said, “is one of them reaching to the ground, picking up a stone, and smashing it on my head.”

To what degree is the Brotherhood responsible for such violence? There is a culture of revenge in Upper Egypt that is far more intrinsically grassroots than any social support for political Islam.

At the same time, when security forces recaptured some of the villages seized by local Islamists, Brotherhood statements portrayed them as peaceful villagers under police attack. Surely it was bloody on all sides, and revenge from both cannot be discounted. But the Brotherhood publicly stood with those who raided police stations and committed the atrocities described above.

The burned-out police station, its walls pocked with bullet holes, was covered with graffiti—“This is the price for injustice. God will have victory,” and “Sisi, you are next.”

But one Brotherhood leader paints the picture as one of simple revenge, and his organization as a restraining force:

“Families in Upper Egypt are not accepting condolences,” said El Magd. “So they will take vengeance. So I think killing will start in Upper Egypt. And I don’t think the [Brotherhood] movement can control this. In Upper Egypt, if families don’t accept condolences for their dead, then they set their minds to vengeance.”

El Magd had the practice of tha’r in mind. “This cannot be controlled. Nobody can control Upper Egypt vengeance. And now everybody has guns. They have guns in Kirdasah.  I am not saying that it will be civil war. But at least Upper Egypt will go back to the ‘70s or ‘80s, where people were shooting at police officers just because they were police officers.”

Upper Egypt is hard to understand. What is the difference between a blood feud and terrorism? Does the distinction even matter?

Truth, justice, and reconciliation are urgently needed in Egypt. Will Morsi’s trial be the beginning of this process, or just one more obfuscation to keep it from happening?

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Egypt for Expats… Ugh?

Expat Map

We like it here, but many people don’t, it seems. From the Washington Post, reporting on a survey by HSBC bank:

The worst of these 34 countries to be an expat is Egypt, which has seen xenophobia rise considerably since this summer’s military coup and wave of populist nationalism.

East Asian nations rank highest, and among the lowest are Western European. The Middle East doesn’t fare well in general:

Middle Eastern countries tend be worse places for expats, owing to legislation that makes it tougher for foreigners to own property and to formal and informal social restrictions that can cut back on quality of life. The exceptions are Bahrain and Qatar, two very wealthy and very small Gulf states whose governments work to attract the wealthy expats they see as crucial to building businesses there. It should go without saying that HSBC’s study does not consider “guest workers” in its measurements. Gulf states, particularly Qatar, have notorious reputations for mistreating migrant laborers from South and Southeast Asia, who work in difficult conditions and with few protections.

Egyptians often ask us: We all want to leave, why did you come here? Let’s just say we’re suckers for xenophobia and populist nationalism, and leave it at that.

Why does anyone live anywhere? God ‘determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.’ What is more important is how to live wherever you are. For our thoughts on that matter, please read the opening post to our blog, also titled ‘A Sense of Belonging‘, and this post also considering our expat status, ‘The Sole of Belonging‘.

What does HSBC know anyway? Egypt is great.

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Kerry’s Visit, as Reported in Cairo and Washington

First from Ahram Online, in very negative tones:

US Secretary of State John Kerry met with top Egypt officials to convey Washington’s “deep concern” about the transitional period and to offer the US’s goodwill should developments move “on the right track,” according to Western diplomats.

But on CNN, the focus brushes over any difficulties at all:

U.S. ties with Egypt go deeper than aid, America’s top diplomat said Sunday.

“Let me make it clear here today: President Obama and the American people support the people of Egypt,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said. “We believe this is a vital relationship.”

Both articles report the general thrust of the speech, but their opening leads are indicative. The US wants to avoid a crisis while Egypt wants to project one.

I cannot speak very well about the messaging coming from Washington, but Egypt is currently filled with belief that the US backed the Muslim Brotherhood and is even now working behind the scenes against the popularly backed military move to depose President Morsi.

After all, for many here, the timing of Kerry’s visit is auspicious. He arrives one day before Morsi’s trial is to begin.

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Where Fur Meets Faith

I Paw Moses

Since I began contributing articles to Christianity Today my name and email have been linked into a database used by many to promote their cause, article idea, new book, or, in this case… canine apparel. I can unsubscribe anytime I’d like, but every once in a while interesting things come across the board. This one, however, is worth sharing. Perhaps in some odd way it will help their business:

TEMPLE OF DOG…WHERE FUR MEETS FAITH

Temple of Dog, a manufacturer of dog apparel and toys, has launched a fun faith-based line of cotton shirts. With sayings like “Kiss me, I’m Chewish,” and “Boneified Christian” these canine tees are great for faithful Fido to show off his faith! And, just in time for Halloween and the holidays, your furry friends can sport a slew of festive tees, like “Fleas Navidad” and “Yappy Yamaka.” Temple of Dog provides pure tail-wagging canine couture.

Temple of Dog (TOD), a manufacturer of dog apparel, toys and cards, today announced the launch of their faith-based line of cotton dog shirts, offering dog owners a variety of sku’s and sizes designed within the Jewish, Christian, Buddhist and Mormon disciplines.

They weren’t interested in the Muslim market? Perhaps they did their research well; many Muslims consider dogs to be unclean.

“The idea started as a ‘chocolate-meets-peanut butter’ moment,” explained co-founder Cynthia P.  Jenkins. “Blending one’s personal dogma with his or her dog is a match made in heaven.”

Dog and dogma… Clever, or way too obvious?

The American Pet Products Association reports that Americans will spend $55.3 billion on their pets this year, a 7.9% increase over 2012. Halloween pet spending accounts for $371 million and the average holiday shopper averages $46 per pet. To that end, Temple of Dog will be adding additional religions and products to their line this month, including: “Yappy Yamaka” and “Fleas Navidad” greeting cards; “Doggie Lama” and “Latter Day Saint” dog shirts; and “Let’s Nosh!” and “My Bowl Runneth Over” bowls.

“Our pets – along with our faiths – are essentially recession-proof,” said Gardenswartz and Jenkins. “Our only limitation is the real estate on a dog’s body.”

In just about every culture the religious temple has also been a marketplace – it’s where people congregate. See my previous article on atheism if your disgust runneth over.

If not, click here for more information. Jesus also said to use worldly wealth to make friends for yourself, so perhaps Temple of Dog should be saluted instead!

Temple of Dog

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Changes in the Neighborhood

Maadi Street

We spent a good part of this past summer in the United States, far away from the explosive political situation. As we prepared to return, nearly everyone asked a similar question: Is it safe?

It was a fair question. Hundreds of supporters of the deposed president were killed while security dispersed their sit-in. Dozens of churches across the country were attacked, with many burned. It was a volatile situation.

But it was also a geographically limited situation. As we inquired about our own neighborhood of Maadi, we were constantly assured that things were safe and that violence was taking place in known locations.

After several weeks back, we made this video showing local slices of life. There have been changes, and we note them. But we also hope you get the idea that life moves as normal. We’re glad also you get a small window into this our normal life, and can rest assured we are doing well.

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Surveying Foreign Christian Residents in Egypt on the Interpretation of Political Events

St. John's Church Maadi

In Egypt’s current political struggle both sides are using the media to highlight their interpretation of events. State media is accused of turning the nation against the democratically elected president and his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, anti-Islamists target Western media in particular of having a bias toward the Brotherhood, against the military, and neglect the popular role in Morsi’s overthrow.

This survey was designed to test one overlapping segment within this struggle to establish a media narrative: foreign Christian residents.

Two assumptions were made of this community. First, they would be sympathetic to local Coptic opinion, which is strongly anti-Islamist. Second, they would be consumers of Western media and generally trust their journalistic professionalism.

Thirty-three individuals were surveyed, including both leaders and laity of the Catholic and Protestant foreign communities of Egypt. They were asked fifteen questions concerning recent political events beginning with the election of Mohamed Morsi as president. Each question was provided various options, reflecting the opinions and conspiracies of both camps.

Participants were allowed to choose more than one answer, if multiple interpretations were possible. They were asked only to choose according to their leanings and perceptions, not according to an elusive certainty or proof. Not all participants answered each question. In the results which follow, this explains why some percentages are provided with the qualifier ‘among those responding’.

Here are the questions as they were posed to participants:

1.      Did Mohamed Morsi legitimately win the presidential election?
2.      Were Egypt’s political problems caused by:
The desire of the Muslim Brotherhood to dominate
The deliberate non-cooperation of opposition parties
Normal competition after a revolution
3.      Were Egypt’s economic problems caused by:
Morsi’s mismanagement
State sabotage of gas and supplies
Continuing deterioration since the revolution
4.      Did Western powers support Morsi because:
He was the legitimately elected president
They desired the Muslim Brotherhood to replace Mubarak
They desired Islamist rule to weaken Egypt
They desired to discredit Islamism by letting it rule temporarily
5.      Did Morsi and the Brotherhood desire:
To turn Egypt into an Islamic state
To recreate the Mubarak regime
To shepherd in a civil democracy
6.      Was the Rebellion (tamarrud) Campaign:
A grass-roots movement expressing popular rejection
Aided by the military/state/businessmen
A conspiracy to end the Morsi presidency early
7.      Should the military have:
Intervened to depose Morsi as actually happened
Waited longer to see how things would develop
Not intervened at all
8.      Was the military action a coup d’etat?
9.      Was the removal of Morsi:
Mostly positive for Egypt
Mostly negative for Egypt
Both positive and negative in different ways
Necessary for Egypt
10. Should the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest site:
Have been dispersed
Have been relocated to another area
Have been left to protest indefinitely
11. Why did so many people die:
Because of deliberate excess force used by the security services
Because of poor training in crowd control
Because of pro-Morsi armed resistance
12. Were the widespread attacks on Christians and their churches:
Orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood
A spontaneous reaction by pro-Morsi supporters
The action of criminals exploiting the situation
A conspiracy by the state to tarnish the Islamists
13. Should the Muslim Brotherhood:
Be labeled as a terrorist organization, banned, and prosecuted
Be invited into national reconciliation
Be allowed to participate in the new democratic roadmap
Be forbidden from politics but allowed a social role
14. Does the military desire:
To rule directly (perhaps through a retired general)
To have influence and guardianship from behind the scenes
To maintain its economic privileges
To secure a true and open democratic transition
To destroy the Muslim Brotherhood
To prevent Islamist rule in general
15. Will the coming months/years in Egypt witness:
The development of an emerging democracy
The return of an autocratic state
New economic prosperity
Continued economic deterioration
A reversal back to Islamist rule (democratic or otherwise)
Low-level, but violent Islamic insurgency
War (either civil or regional)

 

Each possibility was given a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ choice to indicate the perception of the participant.

Here are the key findings:

Did Mohamed Morsi legitimately win the presidential election?

  • 52% said yes, 48% said no, roughly mirroring his percentage of winning

Egypt’s political problems were caused by:

  • 97% of all surveyed believed it was due to the MB’s desire to dominate
  • 45% also blamed deliberate non-cooperation on the part of the opposition
  • 36% attributed it to normal competition after a revolution

Egypt’s economic problems were caused by:

  • 82% blamed Morsi’s mismanagement
  • 42% also blamed a state policy of sabotage
  • 82% believed the poor economy following the revolution played a role

Western powers supported Morsi because:

  • 73% believed it was because they recognized him as the legitimately elected leader
  • 24% believed they desired the MB to continue Mubarak’s policies, with 9% support for other conspiracy theories

The political desire of the Muslim Brotherhood was:

  • 100% to turn Egypt into an Islamic state
  • 0% to turn Egypt into a civil democracy

The Tamarud Campaign was:

  • 82% believed it to be a grass roots campaign
  • But 67% believed it also to be sponsored by the army, state, or businessmen
  • Even so, respondents divided evenly if it was a conspiracy to remove Morsi from power, though only 30% of everyone surveyed indicated this

On military intervention to depose Morsi:

  • 70% agree with their decision to do so, as opposed to waiting longer or doing nothing
  • But 47% call it a coup anyway, while 53% believe it does not deserve that label
  • 93% of those responding believe this action was mostly positive for Egypt
  • 75% find that it was also somewhat negative
  • 85% believed it was necessary

On dispersing the pro-Morsi sit-in:

  • 79% agreed with the decision to do so
  • 88% believe that many people died due to the MB’s decision to resist with arms
  • 45% also believed the security forces deliberately used excess force
  • 48% believed poor training on the part of the security forces contributed

On the subsequent attacks on churches:

  • 76% believe these were orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood
  • 58% believe it was a spontaneous action by Morsi supporters
  • 48% also thought criminal elements were involved
  • 9% believe it was at least also a state conspiracy to make Islamists look bad

The Muslim Brotherhood should be:

  • 42% believed it should be labeled a terrorist organization and banned
  • Only 27% opposed this designation
  • Responders were roughly divided between inviting them to national reconciliation and allowing them political participation in the new elections, with slightly more positive response

The military desires:

  • Of those responding, 59% did not believe the military wants to rule directly
  • But 73% believe they want to maintain significant influence behind the scenes, and 52% to maintain their economic interests (0% opposition to this idea)
  • Of responders, 60% believe the military wants to conduct an open democratic transition, but 40% do not
  • 48% believe they want to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood, and 61% believe they want to prevent Islamist rule in general

The future holds:

  • 48% of all and 73% of responders are confident a real democracy will begin to emerge
  • At the same time, of those responding, half fear the return of another autocratic system
  • 55% believe the economy will continue to deteriorate, with only 27% predicting new prosperity
  • Only 3% predict a return to Islamist rule, but 79% predict a continued low-level Islamist insurgency
  • 9% predict war in Egypt’s near-term future

In quick summary, therefore, this sample of foreign Christian residents of Egypt indicates the community largely accepts the anti-Islamist narrative concerning the Muslim Brotherhood, while at the same time displaying significant, but not universal, distrust about the role and intentions of the military and state.

Determining whether their perceptions are correct or incorrect was not the goal of this survey. Rather, results indicate the following possibilities:

  • Foreign Christian residents are disproportionately influenced by local anti-Islamist sentiment or their own anti-Islamist inclinations
  • Western media has not exhibited sufficient pro-Islamist bias to sway their interpretation of events, but has contributed to a distrust of local actors
  • As residents, these foreign Christians are well placed to interpret local events.

Other interpretations are also possible, including combinations of these three.

Western media is understood to be professional in its coverage, though subject to the ability to find suitable local spokesmen to convey perspectives. Most actors in Egypt are polarized and subject to their own biases.

Egyptian state media, however professional, is understood to be the voice of the government, and independent media has been drawn into the local dispute. Pro-Islamist media has largely been shut down.

In wading between the two, one further assumption is necessary concerning foreign Christian residents: They will represent the truth as they perceive it. The value of this survey consists therein.

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An Alternate History for Pope Tawadros

From Salama Moussa, writing with deep respect for the Coptic pope and the impossible leadership position thrust upon him during divisive political times. Still, he wonders if things could have been different:

Three months after the July 3 events it is still impossible to criticize Pope Tawadros II presence on the stage with General Sisi and Sheikh Al Azhar. It is, however, possible to think of an alternative history. In that history the Pope would have indicated his support privately but refrained from the public display to lessen his political burden, one that he insisted he did not want in the first place.

He could have also indicated privately that while disapproving of the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, and not wishing them an exclusive role in running Egypt, he could not sanction the killing of either the innocent or the guilty. In doing so he would have assumed the role of a father to the Muslim Brothers, of whose behavior he surely disapproves, but whom he must love as children of God. It is a tough task, fit only for a Patriarch.

Would such a stance have lessened the attacks against the Copts?  Probably not. Would it have made the state serve them less? Possibly. The current feeble efforts can still be weaker. It would have placed the Pope among the ranks of the most exceptional men of the new century, and possibly given a template for reconciliation to the hardened hearts of the Egyptian political class. There is no doubt of the risk of such actions toward the Copts of Egypt, but maybe it is time for the Coptic Church to aim wider than just Egypt, and higher than just its needs.

It would also have been Christian in the literal sense; the sense that Christ’s ministry aimed for the fallen and deluded.

Moussa is cautious about issuing his opinions from afar, not being in Egypt. But perhaps this vision can still be considered, and not just viewed as a missed opportunity.

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Humble Wrestling: The Only Solution for Islamists and Christians?

I believe events like this conference in Jordan, excerpted below, are absolutely necessary, even if they don’t really go anywhere. But agreement can never be achieved unless they go at all. Here, from al-Monitor, is an example illustrating absolutely different worldviews:

So an obvious question was posed to the Islamists: Do you accept, alongside your Islamic laws and alongside the personal status laws for other communities, that in your countries there is also one civil personal status law that is optional? In other words, do you accept that a person is given the choice to either follow the laws of his sect or leave his sect and resort to the civil law under the confines and protection of the state?

Faced with this question, the Islamists did not hesitate to assert their absolute refusal of the proposal: a civil law, even if optional, is forbidden — a person may not leave his religion. By “person” they mean a “Muslim,” because current laws allow non-Muslims to convert to Islam. Sometimes they even encourage it as a means to either escape harassment or obtain a government job reserved for Muslims, in addition to dozens of other reasons.

In lieu of agreement, the article states attendees suffered ‘a vicious cycle of pleasantries’. Such a description characterizes much inter-religious dialogue, and is useful in its own right. Pleasantries can lead to friendship.

But what is necessary, especially in Egypt, is for Christians and Islamists to wrestle over the future of their nation. Christians may not be able to force their way, but if Islamists were to seek their blessing, and do all that is necessary to get it, they just might succeed.

The Islamists did not hesitate to confirm they have the right to reach power as they see it and practice it. They kept repeating the following mantra: “We will only resort to democracy that emanates from the ballot box.” Many tried to explain to them that democracy is not just the ballot box, but the Islamists did not pay them much attention. The Islamists’ main concern was to assert their rejection of what happened in Egypt and confront the rule of the “coupists,” as they call Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule, against the legitimate authorities. Regarding the concerns of their fellow Christian citizens, it seemed to a large extent to not be part of their concerns today or tomorrow.

Unfortunately, this has largely been Egypt’s experience.

It is hard for anyone to be humble. Many Islamists might find it even more difficult to seek this Christian blessing, as they see themselves as the possessors of the completed and perfected faith, and furthermore, they are numerically superior. How arrogant, they might think, of Christians not to yield. Don’t we give them protection under sharia law?

Ah, but this means little to them:

One last example that illustrates the dialogue’s difficulties was the discussion about personal status laws in countries dominated by Islamists. The Islamists usually try to show that they are open to other groups by supporting, as a rule, that other sects are given their own personal status laws — whereby every sect is given its own laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption, transfer of ownership and other family matters. But at the same time, the Islamists insist that Islamic law is a “major” or a “principal” source of legislation of the state. Discussion by Christian participants at the conference showed that this rule is not sufficient, fair or balanced. In fact, it often conceals a gradual process to subdue non-Muslim citizens in those countries by degrading the minorities’ demographic and geographic presence, Islamicizing society and eliminating pluralism.

Islamists either smile slyly at this complaint, choose to ignore it, or else they cannot even comprehend it – confident in their understanding of God’s will in sharia law as best both for them and for Christians. True humility is harder for the one who believes that he already humbly and generously gives to his ‘lesser’. They have a point, but humility does not prove points. It loves and embraces.

So what should humility look like for the Christians? No one must ever abandon principles and convictions. Humility is not a game of power and pressure. Rather, it must come in an acknowledgment that Islamism is a strong societal impulse, and those who possess it are their fellow citizens.

Here is where it is easy, and necessary, for me to duck out of the discussion. If both sides came humbly, what would they decide? Here, I have no say. Even in asking both sides to come to the table I have nearly gone to far. Why should they yield even that initial bargaining position, when sides are viewed in mutual distrust?

I don’t know, and I can’t convince them. All I can do is trust that it is ‘right’. All I can hope for is that God would honor it, and dishonor all who seek first their particular benefit.

After all, the status quo is not working. Christians are often ignored or used as pawns, and Islamists have failed to successfully establish their project anywhere there is religious diversity.

It is not dialogue that is necessary, though it is helpful. It is wrestling. It is the sort that, like Jacob with the angel, would not let go until he secures a blessing. It is the sort that engages in respect and will not cease until it is mutual.

I don’t know, maybe that is not humility at all. But humility might be able to avoid Jacob’s fate. Though he obtained his blessing, he lived the rest of his life with a dislocated hip.

Christians and Islamists have dislocated far more. Perhaps it cannot be otherwise. Perhaps their ideas are completely incompatible.

Fair enough. Ideas cannot be humble, they can only seek their own. But people are more flexible. People can wrestle.

People can bless. It is time Christians and Islamists begin this strategy with one another, even if unilaterally.

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An Unfortunate Song with a Catchy Tune

Ali al-Haggar
Ali al-Haggar

This popular Egyptian song by Ali al-Haggar is titled ‘We are a People’. It was created around the time of the military action to remove President Morsi from power, showing scenes from the protests against him.

Fair enough, but the lyrics do not stop at the title. The refrain continues ‘… and you are a people’.

It is a very thinly veiled contrast of the Egyptian people with Islamists, and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood.

This could possibly, maybe, be fair enough. The Muslim Brotherhood is a transnational organization that aims for the unity of the Muslim peoples. Their opponents accuse them of using Egypt as a launching pad for a new caliphate, rather than being loyal to Egypt as a nation-state.

As such, they are a separate people, or so the song suggests.

This is very dangerous and divisive sentiment. Some may say these are dangerous and divisive times. It is good, they say, the Brotherhood has been removed from power before it is too late.

Perhaps. But the song continues, ‘Despite there being only one God, we have a God, and you have a God.’

One Salafi friend, profiled here, complained bitterly about this line before I was even aware of the song.

Islamists are often accused of being ‘takfiris’ – those who call anyone who does not agree with them an infidel. This song does the same in reverse.

‘Take your fatwas and go far away from our land,’ it sings. Early after the revolution some Salafis told Christians and liberals they could leave Egypt and go to Europe or America if they didn’t like the results of elections.

‘We have ibn Sina and ibn Rushd [two famous Arab philosophers], you have bin Laden [you know who he is],’ it also declared. Since dispersing the pro-Morsi sit-in the media had declared the crackdown on the Brotherhood as a ‘War against Terrorism.’

And perhaps it is. Few things are yet clear, but the dangerous and divisive lyrics of this song are one of them. Whatever criminal conspiracy the Brotherhood has possibly engaged in, there are hundreds of thousands of ordinary Egyptians who are partial, at least, to the slogans and promise of Islamism.

These deserve better than this song offers them.

But it is quite catchy. Propaganda often is.

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What Happens if US Aid to Egypt is Cut?

As the US administration has decided to suspend some foreign military assistance to Egypt, consider this article from Reuters, carried by Ahram Online, from a few weeks previous:

Richard Genaille, deputy director of the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, said he hoped the Obama administration reached a decision soon on whether to continue $1.23 billion in U.S. military assistance to Egypt, given the large number of weapons shipments in the pipeline.

“We’re kind of antsy about that,” Genaille said after a speech at the ComDef industry conference in Washington. “There’s a whole bunch of contracts out there. The bills keep coming in and we’ve got to be able to pay them somehow otherwise we go in default.”

….

Funding for the weapons sales must be finalized or “obligated” by September 30, when the U.S. government’s 2013 fiscal year ends, or the funds will revert to the U.S. Treasury, officials say.

“We’re kind of hoping that sometime pretty soon they’ll make a decision one way or another – either we terminate or they actually give us some more of the Egyptian (foreign military funding) so we can pay the bills,” Genaille said.

He said the administration was trying to sort through the potential costs associated with terminating contracts, but the amount would be “substantial – in the billions.”

US ‘aid’ to Egypt is a useful foreign policy tool, worthy to be debated as a legitimate budget expenditure. But it is important to remember this aid is essentially a subsidy to the defense industry. It’s just nice to hear the Pentagon brass say so.

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Revolution and Happiness

To those young men and women and idealists of all sorts who looked longingly at the first wave of the Arab Spring:

Here, courtesy of the United Nations via Ahram Online, is a sobering statistic:

A report published by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network has listed Egypt as the 130th most happy nation out of 156 surveyed.

Egypt’s happiness rate dropped by 21.2 percent in comparison with 2005-2007, according to the 2013 World Happiness Report which was published in September.

According to the report, countries in the Middle East and North Africa have witnessed a decrease of nearly 60 percent in their “happiness rate.”

In today’s day and age, much of what can be considered happiness is tied to the feeling of belonging to and working for good in something greater than oneself. I certainly understand how the heroic example of the Arab Spring qualifies.

For those living this reality, however, it is not working out so well.

This is a good reminder of two things: Commitment must outlast the temporary vagaries of ‘happiness’, and, it is very important to chose that commitment wisely.

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An Egyptian Prayer of Fear

Prayer of Fear

Sometimes it is hard to pray for Egypt.

Every Friday I seek to semi-summarize events of the week and reflect on what God would desire as Egypt’s best. This becomes harder because I don’t want these to be my prayers, but something all Egyptians – Muslims and Christians, of all political stripes – can pray together.

As such, it is often reduced to the triumph of principles, the application of which might be stridently debated among those who would jointly call for justice, freedom, and the like.

I suppose this has been the plague of post-revolutionary Egypt. Still, we should not stop praying, nor should Egyptians stop seeking joint solutions beyond the principles. Too many seem ready to accept their desired solution be imposed upon their opponents.

Yes, it is hard. How can right and wrong be compromised? How can completely divergent perspectives come together?

As a result, my prayers get repetitive, and often are reduced to the posing of questions. I, myself, generally don’t know how to answer them. Inasmuch as Egyptians differ over the answers, the best we can hope for is that God will sort it out – preferably through some sort of consensus.

But can we rejoice in the triumph of one side of a dichotomy: Morsi vs. Sisi, legitimacy vs. coup, Islamism vs. liberalism, extremism vs. democracy?

After all, if God is sovereign over the promotion of kings and the deposing thereof, he is not above using the deceitful wiles of man to establish his righteous will.

But as the sides have changed so frequently, how can any have confidence God’s will is behind it all, beyond simple theological assertion?

Is he winnowing Egypt? Is he punishing her? Will one set of partisans triumph in the end after he brings them through tribulation?

I wish I had the discernment and wisdom I ask him to give the good people of Egypt. May they soon have a nation to match all of his principles, whatever that must look like.

In the meanwhile, I am glad to share this video prayer offered by an Egyptian, which wrangles over similar issues. Like mine, it is comprised more of questions than anything else. It combines images of triumph from the continuing revolution with images of its tragedy. It is moving and sobering.

It is also a prayer. Please pray along with them, and may God’s will be done. As it both opens and closes: Deliver us…

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Brief Portraits of Egyptian Atheism

Arabic Atheism

From Egypt Independent, on a very taboo subject in which some have given their full name and testimony:

Those who have come out publicly as atheists have been not only isolated by their friends and families, but also society in general. However, others who turn down their familial religion have faced many worse trials than mere isolation.

Asmaa Omar, 24, who has just graduated the Faculty of Engineering, said that once she revealed her beliefs to her family, they began to physically and mentally torture her. Her father slapped her in the face and broke her jaw. She was not able to eat properly for seven months.

Both her immediate and extended families began to insult her. “You just want to have free relations with boys,” they would say, or “You used to be the best girl in the family,” and “Now you’re a prostitute.”

Some come from a Christian background:

Ayman Ramzy Nakhla, 42, comes from a Protestant background. He worked in preaching Christianity with the church, but then decided to abandon religion altogether. He is now not very much concerned with knowing if God really exists or not.

Nakhla’s father was a priest, and Nakha worked for ten years as librarian in the Theology College of the Evangelical Church, and as an assistant to a priest, which is an administrative position. Ramzy says that this background was the one that actually led him to lose interest in religion, getting so close to the truth of the Church made him decide to leave it.

Others from a Muslim background:

Other atheists say they believe atheism is in fact more moral than the old, rigid moral codes offered by traditional religions.

Omar says her journey began when prominent cardiologist Madgy Yaqoub managed to treat a two-year old relative of hers in open heart surgery. Rahman, the child, had a valve that did not work and another with malformation.

The successful operation led Omar to wonder how a man such as the doctor, who had lived his life saving many children like Rahma, could be thrown to hell for not being a Muslim. Omar found that religions just chose its followers to end up in heaven, and say that other people would go to hell, regardless for whatever good deeds they do in their life.

Omar says she believes in God, but is against all religions. She says she is still looking for Him and is not aware of His truth.

As a result, some mix between the two:

Some atheists, however, still feel without religion, they are missing something. Despite her rejection of religion, Kamel still misses the spiritual side, resorting to Sufism as she attends Sufis meetings and listen to sufi music, especially those of al-Naqshbandi and Nasr Eddin Tobar. She also enjoys listening to Christian hymns and is massively affected by them. She says, however, that this is just a need for spirituality, nothing more.

Kamel goes back to saying that she has not yet reached a final result for her inner conflict.

Indeed, Egypt is changing. Your vote: Is this for better or for worse?